ASHBURN, Va. (CBSDC) — Run defense is no longer the NFL bellwether that it was for so many decades. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay finished 1-2 in run defense in 2012 but neither made the playoffs. Atlanta had the NFC’s best record but its 11th-best run defense. And Super Bowl champion Baltimore ranked just 20th stopping the run.
Still, it certainly didn’t hurt Washington’s run to its first NFC East title in 13 years that its run-stoppers were significantly better than those of its competitors. The Redskins ranked fifth against the run while the Dallas Cowboys (22nd), Philadelphia Eagles (23rd) and New York Giants (25th) all finished in the bottom third of the league in that area.
Of course, the Redskins were strong against the run in part because they were so awful defending the pass, ranking 30th ahead of only the Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints.
Washington was a run-of-the-mill 17th in yards per-carry allowed, a notch below Philadelphia, but still well ahead of Dallas (27th) and New York (28th).
The Eagles will have have a fourth defensive coordinator in four years in 2013. The Cowboys are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme under Monte Kiffin, their third coordinator in four years. The Giants cut defensive tackle Chris Canty and voided the contract of defensive end Osi Umenyiora, a longtime stalwart.
So all those teams’ braintrusts have to be eyeing top college run-stopping talent at the ongoing NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
In contrast, the Redskins’ front seven should return intact if they can retain restricted free agent Rob Jackson and if captain London Fletcher eschews retirement. The inside linebacker, who turns 38 in May, finished 2012 strong with 67 tackles, four interceptions and two sacks during the seven-game winning streak which clinched the NFC East title despite being limited in practice by a sprained ankle.
Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who lines up to Fletcher’s left in coordinator Jim Haslett’s 3-4, was chosen for the Pro Bowl in just his second season. Inside linebacker Perry Riley made 129 tackles (just 10 fewer than Fletcher’s team-leading total) in his first full season as a starter. Like Kerrigan, Riley is just 24 and should be far from his peak.
Jackson, 27, who stepped in when Brian Orakpo suffered a season-ending torn pectoral in Week 2, recorded four interceptions and four and a half sacks in his first extended playing time. Orakpo, 26, a Pro Bowl pick as a rookie in 2009 and again in 2010, is expected to be ready for the start of organized team activities in May.
Up front, left end Adam Carriker, who posted a career-high five and a half sacks in 2011, should also be ready to practice this spring after going down with a torn quadriceps in the same game as Orakpo. Jarvis Jenkins, 24, who replaced Carriker last season will battle him to start in 2013. Right end Stephen Bowen, who’ll be 29 next month, is also back as is nose tackle Barry Cofield, who’s nine days older than Bowen and who was credited with a team-high 35 quarterback pressures while leading the defensive line with 36 tackles.
Reserve linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, the NFC’s Pro Bowl special-teamer, is unsigned but should return unless he’s tempted by a chance to start elsewhere. The same holds for former starting end Kedric Golston, who turns 30 on May 30, the day before Alexander.
Cofield’s backup, Chris Baker, is a restricted free agent who should be back. Chris Neild, who filled that role as a rookie in 2011, will return after missing last season with a torn ACL. Keenan Robinson, the leading reserve linebacker besides Alexander as a rookie in 2012, should be back in time for training camp after suffering a torn pec in Week 12.
Bob Slowik, who switched from coaching the defensive backs to the linebackers last season, also returns along with line coach Jacob Burney.
So if last year’s injured bodies are healed and Fletcher decides to play a 16th NFL campaign, the Redskins should be well ahead of their NFC East rivals when it comes to run defense as the 2013 season begins.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin